Sweeney halts 'Return Home NJ' bill criticized by disabled people's families

By Susan Livio NJ Advance Media 

What just a week ago looked like an appealing alternative to the Christie administration's controversial Return Home NJ plan for hundreds of profoundly disabled people was derailed today — and is likely dead.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) today declined to let the Senate vote on a bill (S2600) that Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset) said the administration told him would spare about 200 people with developmental disabilities from having to leave the out-of-state facilities they've called home for years and relocate to group homes in New Jersey. But when families and their attorneys examined the legislation, they concluded it contained too many loopholes to help anyone, and urged Bateman and fellow sponsors — Sens. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) and Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) ‐ to reject it.

Sweeney said the idea of forcing some people to return to the state and letting others remain "is a horrible choice, but hopefully we can negotiate with the administration."

Scrapping the Christie administration's Return Home NJ plan is "the fairest choice," he said. "I think the better solution is to shut it down leave everybody where they are at."

Later in the day, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved an earlier version of the bill that would protect about 45 of the most medically fragile people from having to move.

"I cannot in good conscience support the amendments advanced in the Senate. That's why I am pleased the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced an unchanged bill today, upon my request,' Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the bill's sponsor. "I am open to amendments, but only if they prioritize the care of our residents and the concerns of their families and guardians. Any changes to this bill must be made in good faith and with those priorities in mind."

Return Home NJ is a state policy that requires 558 people with developmental disabilities living outside the state to move back to New Jersey into a group home. The administration has said the transfers will help the state qualify for more Medicaid funding from the federal government, and also will move people closer to their families. But families have challenged the policy, arguing their loved ones are settled, safe and happy where they've been living — some for decades. Some families say they live closer to their children who are living in Pennsylvania-licensed facilities than they would if they were transferred to home in north Jersey.

Bateman's bill would have grandfathered people who had lived out-of-state for at least 25 years or half of their lives, which includes about 200 people.

But the exceptions would disqualify most, if not everybody who stands to benefit, according to lawyers who represent about 60 families, as well as a half dozen relatives of disabled people who spoke or corresponded with NJ Advance Media. The exceptions, according to the bill, include the requirement that disabled person's guardians live in New Jersey; the out-of-state facility costs must less than a placement offered by the state; they continue to live in the same location for the rest of their lives; they meet Medicaid income guidelines; and their guardian makes the required financial contribution to their care, according to the bill.

Van Drew said he was still hopeful "we can work something out in a bipartisan way. We worry about these people who have been in these placements for decades."